When a shell from a mammoth Nazi coastal gun screams across the Channel and strikes the nurses’ residence at the Parkstone Convalescent Home, three officer patients and a free-lance warrior of the old school tie, already irked by enforced inactivity, decide to act.
They are: MAJOR BRIDIE, ex Libya; CAPTAIN MANCHON, staunch De Gaullist tanks officer; FLIGHT LIEUT. STANISLAUS, a fighting Pole; and THE COLONEL— grizzled commander of the local Home Guard who fortunately has access to the motor launch Kittiwake, bullet-scarred survivor of the Dunkirk affair.
With grim vigor they form a plan to invade the French coast and spike the German long-range gun, which they refer to as Big Hermann.
Due to their flagrant disregarding of all established military procedure or authority, arrangements are of necessity strictly hush-hush the “acquiring” of food, clothing, petrol, Mills bombs, a Lewis gun, small arms and ammo. One other knows of the scheme, a nurse called by them BEA LILLIE, a rather special friend whom Major Bridie considers trustworthy.
Plans are complete; the moon is right, and the. four gather in the boathouse. Face and white mustache blacked-out with shoe polish, his trusty 12-bore shotgun beside him, the Colonel starts the engine, grips the Kittiwake’s wheel and trumpets fiercely:
“Action, you blighters! Action at last!”
(Second of Four Parts)
THOUGH the moon was only a thin crescent the stars were shining. The Colonel steered by them. During the whole of the past week he had kept on assuring the other three that he knew every inch of the river like his own drawing-room. And even when he ran the Kittiwake bow deep into a bed of reed and overhanging willow, it did nothing to shake his confidence in himself. He simply muttered something about the shocking state of the banks and threw the engine over into reverse.
After the Kittiwake had hit the opposite bank stern first, with a crash that sent Flight Lieut. Stanislaus sprawling into Captain Manchon’s lap in the close confines of the little cabin, Major Bridie took over the wheel himself. The Colonel was inclined to be rather resentful about it. It was the banks, he kept repeating, not his navigation that was at fault; and he threatened to take the whole thing up with the Conservancy Board the very moment they got back.
They had covered nearly three miles before they were challenged. The river at that spot ran through the little village of Dunsmere and there was an old Norman bridge that they had to pass under. A voice reached them from above out of the darkness and they saw the shape of two Home-Guard caps faintly outlined against the sky. It was the Colonel’s cheery voice that saved them.
“Home Guard, all well,” he shouted back. “Want to see our identity cards?”
And the Kittiwake went chugging down the river.
They waited anxiously five seconds, ten, fifteen, to see if either of the sentries on the bridge was going to open fire. But by then the Kittiwake had rounded a bend and the danger was over. Major Bridie ran his finger round the inside of his collar.
The ship’s company kept hourly watches. Those who were off duty occupied the small chart room where the only light came from an ordinary bicycle lamp with an old sock pulled down over it. At the moment it was Flight Lieut. Stanislaus and Captain Manchon who were down below. They did not talk very much. They just sat there peering at the crumpled close-up photograph of Big Hermann that the Colonel had laboriously annotated for them. The picture now bore such notes as “50 yards N.N.E. level fairway no bunkers” or “Abt 200 yards due South from fourth hole—small wood and low scrub. Bad country.”
In the end, Captain Manchon broke silence.
“A very remarkable man, your Colonel,” he said quietly. “Just now he wanted to go back because he had forgotten something. It was a tin of biscuits that he had been keeping specially for tonight.”
Up on deck it was very wild and hostile compared with the pitching seclusion of the little cabin. There was a wind, cold as charity, that came slanting across Major Bridie’s face, and little flecks of water fell on his cheek and froze there. The night itself seemed to have grown thicker. It was now perfectly opaque and solid. He was not a pilot at all any longer; he was simply blinding through the night at the wheel of a black and invisible craft. Once, for an instant, he thought that he could discern the dim outlines of wharves and warehouses. But it was not until he could feel the boat rising and falling to a deeper rhythm that he knew that they had reached the estuary proper.
Then, without warning, one of the shore searchlight stations on the opposite bank exposed itself. The brilliant shaft of pale yellow light was reflected in the water and Major Bridie would see the boat under him again. It seemed to him at that moment as though everyone else on the South Coast must be able to see it as well. Even the Colonel muttered something about, “Wonder if they’ve spotted us?”
But there was more than the Kittiwake out moving that night; and there was a sudden uproar as a whole battery of A.-A. guns went into action against an unseen raider up above them. For a moment the clouds were lit up, thunderstorm fashion, by the gun-flashes, and in one place there was a vivid cone of light with a fiery centre. Over the chug-chug of the Kittiwake’s engine they heard the authentic crump of a bomb exploding.
The Colonel made his way toward the man at the wheel.
“Rather useful raid, that,” he remarked. “Helps to keep their mind off us.”
Major Bridie, his eyes still staring out into the darkness in which little patches of mist like detached clouds came drifting to meet them, muttered something about needing more than a raid to get them past the shore defenses and buried his face in the hood of the luminous compass.
The guns ceased suddenly and, with their cessation, the noise of the Kittiwake’s engine seemed louder than ever. Major Bridie could feel a score of listening posts being trained on them.
“If they start firing at us, throw yourself flat on your face,” the Colonel advised.
MAJOR BRIDIE had rather a lot of things to think about at that moment and the chatter of his companion did not help him.
“Lash the wheel,” he heard the Colonel’s voice saying out of the darkness. “Lash the wheel and then she’ll keep straight on.”
Major Bridie did not answer and a moment later a big onion-shaped buoy appeared from nowhere and nearly scraped their side. It was too near to be comfortable. But at least it showed that they were on their course—too much on it in fact. Another point to port and they would have run smack into it. It was just after they had passed the buoy —Dickens’ Buoy it was marked on the chart —that the searchlight was turned on them. At one moment they were blinding on through the darkness and, at the next, they were in a glare like the shooting circle in a film studio.
“Duck your head,” the Colonel roared out.
But Major Bridie did not duck his head The searchlight had showed him what he wanted to see. It lay just ahead of a few degrees to starboard—a glistening wall of mist from which little feathery streamers came stretching out like fingers. He put the helm sharply over and steered toward it. The boat heeled over, with the water running dangerously high near the gunwale, and a few seconds later they were lost somewhere inside the mist pocket. They could no longer see anything, and the searchlight beam lit up the mist as though the vapor itself were incandescent. They were completely invisible from the land.
At the same moment one of the light batteries at the mouth of the estuary opened fire. Something passed clean over them with a scream and the mist took up fresh swirling shapes. The splash of the shell and the report from the shore seemed almost simultaneous. The next one was nearer—very near in fact. The Kittiwake tossed to and fro and the water from the shell burst came drenching down on them. There were also fragments of something harder than water; and the sheet metal that the Colonel’s chauffeur had fixed over the bows rang out as though someone had hit it with a hammer. Major Bridie mentally registered that the shooting was thoroughly good grade and up to standard.
Just to fix the gunnery officer Major Bridie put the helm over again and the next shell fell reassuringly wide of the mark. It set the boat rocking a bit but no more. Then, without the slightest warning, they ran clean out of the mist. In front of them the sea showed up again black and oily. Behind, the uproar seemed terrific. Guns of every calibre, that Major Bridie had no idea were concealed there, were opened up. There was the ferocious bark of twelve-pounders, the crackle of Bren guns and the deeper chatter of Vickers, as well as several rounds of ordinary rifle fire. The little patch of mist that they had just vacated was a thoroughly hot spot by now.
When Major Bridie turned his head for a moment and looked over his shoulder he saw that the sea mist had spread and now made a thick, impenetrable-looking barricade some twenty or thirty feet high, cutting them off completely from the shore. For all the coastal batteries could see, the Kittiwake might have laid down her own smoke screen.
“Nice work,” the Colonel said suddenly in his ear. “Keep on your course and to hell with the opposition.”
With his black face and dark clothes the Colonel had a way of materializing right under your nose in a fashion that Major Bridie found oddly disconcerting. Only his heavy breathing announced where he was going to appear next.
The gunfire behind them had already died down somewhat. There were only desultory bursts as though the gunners were satisfied that they had repelled whatever forces had attempted to attack them.
Major Bridie, however, did not yet begin congratulating himself. He had sufficient confidence in the coastal defenses to imagine what was being passed along the wires at this very instant. At any moment he expected to come up with a little band of M.T.B.’s all industriously searching this particular part of the Channel for him. And it was with relief that he found that they were now running through further skeins of mists that wrapped themselves round the wake of the boat.
They drove on for another half hour through the darkness. The mist had changed to rain by now and the visibility was getting pretty close again to a good round zero. It was in this all-embracing blackness with the rain hissing down onto them that they ran into a convoy.
The first hint they had that they were in the middle of a traffic lane was when a destroyer appeared abruptly from nowhere and nearly overturned them with its bow wave. It disappeared again almost in the same moment and Major Bridie wiped the sweat off his forehead as it passed. Then, before the Kittiwake had ceased tossing, another ship, a fat-bellied thing loaded with meat from the Argentine as it happened, came thumping by them; and when she had passed the Kittiwake began standing on her nose again.
IT WAS either five or six ships which passed in the night before the real trouble started. And then the batteries from the other side—the French side as Major Bridie still obstinately thought of it —began shelling them. This was very different from the light fire that they had just encountered. The fire which the Germans were putting over was big stuff that sent a column of water the height of a house. The sea itself shivered every time one of them fell in it. Between the detonations Major Bridie could hear the Colonel patiently explaining that the convoy had mistaken them for a submarine and that one of the destroyers was dropping depth charges.
And then, as the convoy moved up Channel, the shells followed it. Half an hour later the gunfire was only a vague uproar in the distance and t he sea on which they were riding was as smooth again as though nothing had ever come flopping down into it. As Major Bridie listened to the heavy boom from the German batteries he smiled a little smile. He told himself that he was hearing the voice of t he very monster that they had set out to find. Altogether, he felt oddly like an old-fashioned knight out dragon hunting.
Then, because if his schedule was right they were approximately halfway across, Major Bridie handed the wheel over and went below. He knocked three times on the little door so that even the bicycle lamp under its woollen sock could be extinguished before the door was opened, and then found himself envying the luxurious life that was going on there underneath where his feet had been. Captain Manchon, his head bent down almost level with the table top, was now reading a somewhat creased copy of yesterday’s France Libre, and Flight Lieut. Stanislaus was busy manicuring his nails. It seemed a strange thing for a coal black savage to be doing.
Flight Lieut. Stanislaus finished trimming his little finger and went up to join the Colonel. Major Bridie and Captain Manchon were left together. For a few moments Captain Manchon went on reading, then he put down the paper and turned to Major Bridie.
“Tell me again, Major,” he said quietly, “what are the chances, do you think, of this expedition of ours? One in ten thousand?”
Major Bridie considered the point for a moment; it was a habit inherited from his Scottish ancestors to ponder for an altogether disproportionate time before committing himself to anything. After a silence which seemed endless.
“Not one in a hundred thousand,” he replied at last. “Probably not one in a million. That’s the whole charm of the thing. On the face of it, it’s impossible. And there’s always a million to one chance in favor of the other fellow never having thought that anyone would attempt it.”
Captain Manchon shook his head.
“It remains illogical,” he said sadly. “But it is now too late to reconsider. All the same, I wish to place on record t>hat I do not approve. We are four brave men. We should have held ourselves in reserve for the big offensive. It is then that we shall be needed.”
“And do nothing in the meantime?” Major Bridie demanded.
“I have told you before that you are not logical,” Captain Manchon answered. “War is like a game of chess. It is a matter of concentrating all one’s pieces—not simply thrusting forward with one piece alone. M. Alekhine, the great player, has said ...”
But what M. Alekhine had said was lost forever in the sound of an explosion outside. It was very close at hand and seemed quite disproportionately loud as though it were inside the boat itself. A moment later the Kittiwake began to swerve violently from her course and there was another sound—the sound of machine-gun fire. But that seemed, somehow, to be more reasonable; it came from somewhere outside. Major Bridie swore under his breath, extinguished the lamp altogether, and, pulling on the tin hat that he wore slung round his shoulders, went up on deck.
When he got there he found that it was Flight Lieut. Stanislaus who was at the wheel. The Colonel was standing in the stern and to Major Bridie’s amazement he saw that he had his 12-bore in his hands. His feet were placed well apart and he was studying the night sky above him. For all the world it was as though the man were duck shooting.
“You can’t see it now,” he said when he was aware that Major Bridie was beside him. “But it’ll come back again.”
“What will?” Major Bridie asked patiently.
“A Heinkel,” the Colonel replied, baring his teeth which showed up startlingly white in that ebony countenance. “I fired at it and it tried to get us.”
“You fired first?” Major Bridie asked.
“I did,” the Colonel replied emphatically. “It was coming over very low and I thought I’d surprise it.”
“Great Godfrey!” was all that Major Bridie answered.
IN ANY case there was no time to say much more. Already they could hear a drone that the noise of the Kittiwake’s motor could not drown, and out of the mist beside them the Heinkel reappeared. Seen at close range it looked enormous. And now that they were both out of the mist, the night seemed dark no longer. The slender crescent moon seemed to Major Bridie to be the very brightest crescent that he ever remembered.
The Heinkel opened fire immediately. At that range it was impossible to miss. Before Major Bridie could get to the Lewis gun on the swivel post, the swivel post itself had been all broken up to match wood and there were ugly little holes in the boat’s side through which the water came spurting in small fountains. Then the Colonel fired off both barrels again, and began hurriedly reloading.
From the doorway of the cabin Captain Manchon regarded them.
“It is a still greater pity,” he said, “that we should not even have been allowed to reach the coast. Had we done so at least we might have been allowed to kill one German between us, perhaps two.”
It was the Heinkel once more that interrupted the conversation. It came in this time flying so low that the wing tip when it wheeled seemed almost to touch the water. And the Colonel was ready for it.
“Draw the bead across the line of the beak,” he said aloud, “and fire five lengths in front.”
Without more ado he fired. And the effect was remarkable.
The machine guns in the plane ceased abruptly and even the noise of its engines changed. From the port nacelle a deep ruby colored glow appeared and then changed suddenly to a sheet of pure white flame. The Heinkel rocketed for a moment like a pheasant that has been shot in the lungs, and obliterated itself in the surrounding mist.
The men in the Kittiwake held their breath and waited. They did not have long to wait. There was the unmistakable sound of something very large hitting water and a second later there was the uproar of an explosion that nearly knocked them off their feet.
The Colonel turned gravely to his companions.
“Turned his belly toward me,” he said self-depreciatingly. “Never gave himself a chance.”
He had not finished his sentence before they heard the sound of another aircraft. It was a higher pitched sound than that of the Heinkel and the engines were in unison, not droning in and out of beat like the Heinkel’s. The red, white and blue circles on its wings shone out startlingly and, as they watched, the Havoc fired another burst into the mist in the direction in which the Heinkel had disappeared. The glimpse that they had of the night-fighter was only a very short one. It was travelling at something like two hundred miles an hour when they saw it and visibility could not have been more than two hundred yards.
“I wonder if that had anything to do with it,” Major Bridie suggested.
The Colonel paused for a moment. He seemed temporarily abashed; but he quickly recovered himself.
“May have done,” he said magnanimously. “Don’t want to claim another fellow’s bird.” He took out his handkerchief and blew his nose loudly. “Tough spot for those Nazis,” he added. “Coming into fire from both sides.”
But Major Bridie by now was going round the Kittiwake examining her. He was almost up to his ankles in water as he did so. The Heinkel in passing had done its work very neatly. There were now some dozen holes in the woodwork and Major Bridie found himself remembering Mr. Lear’s rhyme about the old gentleman who went to sea in a sieve. He agreed that it seemed an unwise sort of thing to do.
“We’ve got to begin bailing,” he said abruptly. “And we’ve got to begin quick.”
It was Captain Manchon who excelled himself. Bailing appeared miraculously to he his metier; he assumed supreme command. He was working with a feverish mechanical energy, and all that he was bailing with was a gallon tin that, in those happier days when people still went fishing, had contained gentles. The others found tins and hailed with him.
At the end of about ten minutes Captain Manchon straightened his hack and put the tin down at his feet. He watched it disparagingly as it floated away from him.
“It is no use,” he said quietly. “The water is gaining. In a few minutes we shall have sunk.”
“Not if we keep bailing,” Major Bridie pointed out.
“And how will we then return?” Captain Manchon enquired. “As soon as we leave the boat it will sink.”
Major Bridie paused.
“Well,” he said, “that gets over one difficulty, doesn’t it? You remember we always wondered what to do with the thing once we’d landed.”
CAPTAIN MANCHON shrugged his shoulders and raised his eyebrows expressively. He was a brave man, but it was simply that his bravery worked along different lines. He would have preferred something with a little more preparation and chance of success behind it.
It was Flight Lieut. Stanislaus, the concert violinist, who was the next to speak.
“If we can get close enough to land,” he said in his high, rather whining voice, “I shall swim for it. There is more possibility for one man to get through than for a whole boat, and I am a good swimmer. I shall wade ashore and come up behind some fat German sentry. Then..." And Flight Lieut. Stanislaus made a gesture that seemed to combine stabbing, shooting, ju-jitsu and garrotry all in one single movement.
Major Bridie meanwhile had made a fuller inspection of the Kittiwake. The Heinkel had fired high and most of the holes were above the waterline. It was only when a bit of a sea hit them that those little fountains appeared so disturbingly in the timbers. The unpleasant fact remained, however, that each moment the water was undeniably rising. It was over the ankles of his sea boots now.
Major Bridie turned and confronted them.
“If we go on hailing,” he said at last, “we ought to keep afloat for another hour. Perhaps longer. That just about gives us enough time to get hack home. Either to get hack home or go on. It’s just as you please, gentlemen.”
“Go on,” Flight Lieut. Stanislaus answered. “It is the nearest I have been to a German since I was in Warsaw.”
The Colonel cleared his throat.
“I’m sunk anyhow,” he said. “They’ll only stop my pension if I do go back. I’d rather see this thing through.”
There was an awkward silence while the other three men looked toward Captain Manchon. He was standing alone and rather aloof in the centre of the boat.
“I am not accustomed to turning back,” he said at last, almost as though he were reciting a little speech that he had been rehearsing. “It is not in the French character to be unbrave.”
“Then that settles it,” Major Bridie remarked pleasantly.
And bending forward he opened the Kittiwake’s throttle to its full so that the little craft trembled and small waves began to appear in the water that concealed the bottom boards.
The next hour was not pleasant sailing. Major Bridie steered with one eye on his watch and the other on the level that the water made against his sea boots. More than once he began to fear that he had miscalculated. And when a small wave went slopping over into the engine housing, and the engine began to choke and splutter, his fears gradually crystallized into a kind of certainty that made him colder in the pit of his stomach than he already was everywhere else in his body.
There was, indeed, only one thing that relieved the anxiety. That was the Colonel. He went from one to the other in turn, saying in a doleful voice that had a deceptive little lilt at the end of it: “Sorry, chaps, I’m afraid this is all my fault. If it hadn’t been for me, we’d all have been all right—and so would that Heinkel.”
The Kittiwake meanwhile was proceeding. She was distinctly lower in the water. And slower. Much slower. She wallowed along like a Nile hippopotamus with only eyes and snout and the upper part of its hack showing. All the time the water was visibly gaining, hut nevertheless she went forward. According to Major Bridie’s calculations they weren’t more than five or six miles off land.
He looked sharply at his watch again.
“We’ve got to get rid of a bit of ballast,” he said abruptly.
He was thinking of the box of Mills grenades as he spoke. There were a dozen of them, and he remembered going red in the face as he had lurched on hoard with them in his arms. In the circumstances it seemed fitting that he should be the man to unload them again. Sadly and regretfully he prized the lid open and distributed one grenade all round in the manner of a vicar distributing oranges at a church treat. Then he picked up the case that still seemed heavy enough to sink them and sent it overboard.
After that quite a lot of other things belonging to His Majesty went overboard as well. The Lewis gun for which, on paper, the Colonel was responsible; and the tins of petrol that had been so carefully set aside for the return journey as they now saw the return journey for the pipe dream that it was. The box of ammunition went overboard, except for a dozen rounds apiece, and the Colonel’s knobkerrie.
They were now armed only with service revolvers and with one bomb apiece. All of them, that is, with the exception of the Colonel. He had stubbornly retained his 12-bore. On the possession of that he was adamant. He had taken it back only the week before to his gunmakers in the Mall, he explained, and they had formally passed it as fit for buckshot. Under his breath he added that it had been no ordinary charge that had hit the Heinkel.
Major Bridie looked at his watch again.
“Better put on your life belts,” he said. “We may have to swim for it.”
But it was quite another five minutes before the water got into the carbureter and the motor stopped altogether. When that happened, a column of steam rose up, very white against the surrounding blackness of the mist, and the Kittiwake was left drifting like a bit of flotsam amid the treacherous tides of the Channel.
“Now 1 suppose we begin rowing,” Captain Manchon observed sarcastically.
He had always pictured his return at the head of a great armada of invasion barges deep-laden with tanks and armored cars; and the reality somehow didn’t quite square with the picture.
But Major Bridie seemed quite unconcerned,so unconcerned, indeed, that there was something suspicious about it.
“Quite right,” was all he said, and he began groping for the oar that was already floating round his ankles.
THAT was how—rowing the Kittiwake with one oar over the stern in the manner of a harbor boatman, and aided more than they cared to admit by a current that came swirling in with the tide—they drifted onto a very small, very wet and very uncomfortable rock projecting out of the water about two hundred yards from the rocky coast that they had been making for. The mist had cleared a little and Major Bridie was able to take one last reading by the stars. He gave a final check by his sextant and then sent that expensive and life-saving little instrument overboard.
“So far as I can make out, gentlemen,” he announced, “we’re pretty much on our course. Though if you were to ask me exactly where we were I should have to confess that I haven’t the least idea. There wasn’t any rock on the chart I was looking at.”
The rock seemed to be some forty or fifty feet across and by marine standards it was already populated.
A couple of shags or guillemots, resentful at the intrusion, went careering off into the water under their noses. The Colonel scrambled out of the boat and stretched himself.
“Does you good to get a bit of firm ground under your feet again,” he said. “Never really thought we’d get there.”
“We haven’t,” Captain Manchon reminded him sharply. “Major Bridie has just told you that he does not know where we are. Either we were still right out to sea, in which case it is useless, or they will pick us off like rabbits when the sun comes up.”
“Then we will go on and risk sinking,” Flight Lieut. Stanislaus declared. “I refuse to allow myself to have come so far only to remain halfway.”
It was Major Bridie’s voice, reaching him out of the darkness, that disabused him of the idea.
“Can you lend me a hand?” he asked. “I think we’re losing her.”
There was a sucking, gurgling sound as he spoke and the Kittiwake, now knee-deep in water, began to founder. Major Bridie, groping for the hand that should have been there waiting for him, jumped and landed on all fours on the slippery slab of rock. Behind him he could just make out the contours of that comfortable little cabin, its top almost level with the sea. And a moment later there was not even that.
“So that,” said Captain Manchon, “is the end of everything.”
Major Bridie did not reply immediately. When he did he was grinning in the darkness.
“At least,” he said, “we’ve covered up our tracks all right.”
In the end, they did not have very long to wait to find out where they were. Only long enough, in fact, to pass round the flask of brandy that the Colonel had been carrying, and begin rubbing their limbs which they now found were stiff and aching from the cold.
And when they did find out where fate and the current had landed them, the discovery was not an entirely pleasant one. It was like searching for an unexploded bomb after a blitz only to find that you have been standing on it all the time. At one moment they were four wet freezing figures in the darkness; and at the next the blinding pencil of a searchlight from a shore battery was passing clean over their heads.
They were all of them soldiers and with the soldier’s instinct they dropped fiat on their faces where they were. And as they lay there, hoping in the name of all the gods that they did not look too much like human beings, it seemed to them that their little bit of rock must be the most brilliantly illuminated piece of landscape in the whole of northwest Europe.
Overhead the searchlight swept like a great white scythe cutting a slice through the darkness, then returned as though to neaten off the slice, and finally obliterated itself. German vigilance had been satisfied. And with the searchlight’s extinction the darkness seemed to close up again ten times as thick and black and impenetrable as before.
But in the very last moment before the blackout, Major Bridie had allowed himself one little indulgence. He had raised his face some three quarters of an inch from its hard pillow of wet sea weed and had taken a look round. The beam was hitting the sea half a mile beyond them and dissipating itself against the tall pillars of mist that rose there. But the ground at the foot of the projector was brilliantly illuminated by the glare.
Major Bridie could see everything —the figures of the men, the cable leading off to a lorry stowed away somewhere in the background, the inevitable machine-gun tripod. It was only as he lay there for a moment without speaking that the Major realized there w'as something else he had seen. The ragged points of a whole row of smaller rocks were projecting out of the sea in front of him, a kind of causeway leading right up to the shore edge. It was as though all they had to do was to begin wading ashore and present themselves to their hosts who were sitting there waiting for them.
THERE was so little time—Major Bridie calculated there would be only another couple of hours before the dawn—that they made no serious plans. They simply set themselves the task of crossing that natural bridge of stepping stones. The only trouble was that it was a bridge designed for giants. There were gaps of ten feet between some of them—ten feet between and more underneath than they cared to think about.
They proceeded like a race of clumsy and inexpert seals whose mothers had not taught them properly. They slithered off greasy rock slopes, wallowed in water that was so cold that it knocked the breath clean out of their bodies, scrambled up slanting sheets of stone that seemed to have razor blades mounted in them, and lay flat on their faces, gasping and whimpering.
With the exception of Flight Lieut. Stanislaus, who was only thirty-six but had always promised his doctor to avoid any undue strain because of a weakness in his left lung that had been there even before the piece of shrapnel had entered, they were not young men for this kind of amusement. Major Bridie was fifty-two, and he was the youngest. On the third occasion when they had nearly lost the Colonel, they found that he was even less able to look after himself than the others, not only because he was so much older, but because he was still grasping his reconditioned 12-bore.
And when at last they climbed onto something that at first seemed merely a larger rock than the others, and found a double strand of barbed wire confronting them, they realized they had arrived. As they ran their hands gingerly along it, it seemed in its way as cheering as a doormat with the word WELCOME printed across it. From Flight Lieut. Stanislaus there came a deep indrawn sigh of sheer relish and anticipation.
It was the crash the Colonel made in climbing over it that unnerved them. He was a large man and he fell heavily. It seemed to Major Bridie that the noise he made must have been heard from Finisterre to the North Cape. They waited motionless; but nothing happened. The volley they had expected never came. And after a few seconds the Colonel, swearing louder than Major Bridie liked to hear a soldier swear when on active operations, got up again and sorted himself out.
It was still dark, very dark. The foreshore stretched in front of them without any shape or boundary. Major Bridie gathered his little band together.
“May be a cave or something that we can all get into,” he said in a whisper. “We’d better lie doggo for a bit till we know where we are.”
It was only Captain Manchon who dissented. They could, so to speak, : hear him raising his eyebrows superciliously in the darkness. But they j had agreed that to disperse would almost certainly mean they would never find each other again; and Major Bridie had insisted that if there were a German sentry about they should pay him the compliment of all dropping in on him together.
And they had not gone very far—it seemed far but it could not have been more than a few hundred yards really—before they did come upon someone. There were three of them, as a matter of fact—a corporal and two privates. They approached along the shingle, talking together. It was obvious that they were part of some regular patrol; and like most; men who have done the same thing every night for months on end without anything to give the thing variety, they were beginning to take their responsibilities rather slackly. They passed by within fifteen feet of Major Bridie without noticing him.
For Major Bridie they were an anxious few moments.
His two hands were outstretched, gripping something. His right hand had got hold of the Colonel’s shotgun; and his left was fixed firmly on the handle of the short knife that Flight Lieut. Stanislaus was carrying. Major Bridie was rather anxious in fact that the whole affair should not degenerate into a rather small scale assassination.
They allowed the footsteps to die away in the distance and then resumed their hunt for a cave. They found one into which with difficulty three of them could creep, but by no amount of manoeuvring could they manage a fourth. And the cliff, so far as they could tell, stretched away unbroken and inhospitable on either side. It was Captain Manchon who extracted himself. He had been the first to go in and he now came worming his way out again.
“I have a proposal to make,” he said, in his serious, rather sadsounding voice. “I propose that you gentlemen should occupy this shelter while I go forward to investigate. I may be gone rather a long time and I feel it would be better that I should go unarmed. There is nothing that you can do tonight, as you do not know where you are and we are not a large enough party to storm the cliffs in daylight. Tomorrow evening I will return and give you your information. If tomorrow evening comes and I have not returned, no doubt Major Bridie will think up some new stratagem.”
There was still a faint note of sarcasm in his voice as he said it. And the note of sarcasm was clearer when the Colonel suggested that he should go instead.
“I feel,” Captain Manchon replied, “that perhaps my accent would be more suitable. There are so few French fishermen in these parts who cannot speak their own language.”
He paused for a moment and then said: “Until tomorrow evening.”
With that he was gone and the darkness closed behind him.
Major Bridie cleared his throat.
“There goes a very brave man,” he remarked.
But the Colonel wasn’t listening.
“I’ve lost my telescope,” he was complaining. “I could swear I had it with me.”
THE CAVE, when they came to view it next morning, seemed even smaller than it had been the night before. They now knew it for what it was, the apex of a narrow fissure running some fifteen feet into the cliff face. The rock itself was mercifully overhanging so that it sheltered them from the sun and from any inquisitive eyes above them. But from the front, the shore side, it was by no means so private and secluded. When they were all crushed in as tightly as they could pack themselves the last man in still had an excellent view of a piece of shingly beach, the line of rocks across which they had made their landing and a wide stretch of that smooth sheet of water that they still obstinately called the English Channel.
It was in the flickering light of a March dawn that Major Bridie and Flight Lieut. Stanislaus—the Colonel was relaxing after his night up and was snoring loudly with his head buried on his chest and his shotgun across his knees—began artistically rearranging a few boulders like a pair of amateur gardeners building themselves a marine rockery. When their work was finished a four-foot parapet separated them from the beach. Flight Lieut. Stanislaus took a deep breath and rubbed his hands.
“From here,” he said, “we could fight the whole German Army. They could not dislodge us. They would have to send for the Tirpitz to shell us out.”
“Either that or the east wind,” Major Bridie answered. “I have a feeling we shall all have a cold in the head by this evening.”
They breakfasted lightly and without much enjoyment off a square of chocolate and two malted milk tablets apiece. Then Major Bridie passed round the water flask.
“You can each take a mouthful,” he said. “Not a full one, but about half full. I’m not thirsty myself. I’ll wait until later.”
When the water flask was back safely again in Major Bridie’s pocket he addressed the company.
“It’s going to be a bit of a strain,” he said, “just sitting here. Unless we’re careful we may get cramp. So I suggest that we take it in turn to massage each other. That’ll help to keep us warm as well. There’s some more chocolate for lunch, and we can have another couple of milk tablets for tea. I’m afraid that’s about as far as the rations run. But it doesn’t matter really. It’ll keep us going and nobody can do justice to himself on a full stomach.”
Major Bridie paused and rubbed his hand over his cheek where the morning growth of stubble now showed.
“As I said, we shall wait here until this evening, until our friend returns. And if anything detains him we shall just have to content ourselves by having a slap at that searchlight station. It won’t be exactly what we came for but it’ll be something for them to remember us by. And now,” Major Bridie added as though by way of an afterthought, “I suggest that two of us have a little nap while the other keeps guard. If you like to turn in, Stanislaus, I’ll just keep an eye on this bit of coast.”
It was while Major Bridie was keeping watch that he saw two things that interested him a great deal. The first was when a patrol of three men, walking in single file, passed along the beach within twenty-five yards of the cave and stared religiously out to sea all the time. They had almost got out of sight when he saw the leader stoop down and pick something up. Even at that distance Major Bridie recognized it. It was the Colonel’s telescope.
The other two men gathered round, and Major Bridie saw the glint of metal as the telescope was taken out of its case. They played with it for a moment, pulling out the extensions to see if the thing still worked, and then the leader put it back into its case, slung the trophy over his shoulder and led his patrol on again. They walked close to the line of the surf by now and appeared to be looking for any other little trifles that the sea might have washed up for their amusement. When they were lost to view, Major Bridie rubbed his scrubby chin again.
“There don’t seem to be a great many of them,” he told himself. “If they had anything like a full garrison here they’d patrol in numbers.”
Major Bridie was just beginning to wonder how much longer he could keep his eyes open before waking his companions, when he saw something else that interested him. It was far out to sea when he first saw it simply a faint line of darkness against the blue, almost as though a seascape painter had left a smudge of charcoal across the canvas. Then, gradually at first and later very rapidly, the smudge resolved itself into something else. The separate parts of it became visible and Major Bridie realized that he was looking at planes flying in formation.
They were British planes and two minutes later they were roaring overhead. The air in front of him was suddenly full of shell bursts and the white streaks of tracer bullets. An explosion that felt as though someone had raised a gigantic hammer and brought it down on the solid rock of the cl if! knocked him forward and when he had picked himself up he smiled like a bridge player when he sees his opponent play the awaited card.
“There’s evidently something up there that’s worth bombing,” he told himself.
There was something else that made him smile as well. And that was the thought that the others were now awake without his having called them. It was ten o’clock by his watch and he realized that he had missed an entire night’s sleep. When Flight Lieut. Stanislaus offered to take over watch for him, Major Bridie lurched forward and was asleep instantly, his head bent forward on his knees.
WHEN he woke again it was midday. Down his bent spine a raging pain was passing. Also he was cold, deathly cold. He got the Colonel to massage him and as soon as his backbone had stopped hurting and there seemed to be some blood circulating inside him again he dropped off to sleep once more. It was the blank dreamless sleep of the utterly exhausted.
The others let him sleep and occupied themselves with their own private thoughts. They did not attempt to share them by talking. Occasionally they would glance rather humorously toward Major Bridie. After all it had been his idea, this trip, in the first place. And instead of remaining the ever watchful, hawk-eyed leader, there he was dozing away beside them. For all they knew he might even have been dreaming of something pleasant.
When he did awake they were so ready for sleep themselves that they dropped-off immediately. There was no reason why one of them shouldn’t have been sleeping all the time. But in the last analysis they weren’t confident enough of themselves. In Major Bridie they reposed that confidence which goes out mysteriously to every leader. And Major Bridie, awake at last and with his revolver across his knees, sat there staring out to sea thinking thoughts which were his painful version of their own. At the moment he was wondering just what had happened to General de Gaulle’s Captain who had wandered off deliberately unarmed into Herr Hitler’s portion of his native France.
The weather by now had turned fine and even the east wind had dropped. The sun shone brilliantly down on the Straits in front of him, and the waves that came breaking onto the shore were of the smallest. With the bomber sweep over, peace had descended on this local section of the European battle front. The afternoon proceeded as quietly as a charm.
It was after four o’clock when the charm wore off rather suddenly. In the desolate shingly distance Major Bridie detected the figure of a man. For a moment he thought it was Captain Manchon. But as the man came nearer Major Bridie could discern the drab grey field dress of the German Army. It was obvious from the way the man walked that he was not on patrol. He was simply a very bored conqueror out for an afternoon stroll; he sauntered.
With his hands in his pockets he mooched along, stopping to look at the sea gulls, at the small crabs that scuttled between his feet, at the anemones that grew in the rock pools. When he came opposite the miserable little crevice in which Major Bridie and his companions were hiding he stopped, and Major Bridie could see his face. At the moment Major Bridie felt positively sorry for him. He was so young. He had one of those fair-skinned South German faces that made him look rather like a handsome Cambridge undergraduate. Major Bridie doubted if he could be more than eighteen or nineteen.
And then, as he looked, Major Bridie saw him take out a packet of cigarettes and put one to his lips. He had a lighter as well. Major Bridie could hear the sound of the little wheel every time it scraped across the flint. But the breeze from the sea was just too much for it. After the third or fourth attempt the young man put the lighter back in his pocket and began to walk up under the face of the cliff for shelter.
He was walking with his head bent forward, the unlit cigarette still between his lips. He was clearly entirely preoccupied, as unconcerned as he would have been on a Sunday afternoon outing in his own native Bavaria. And he was doing nobody any harm. It was simply that he was unfortunate in the little bit of shelter that he chose.
Major Bridie had risen by now and had pressed himself still closer against the cliff wall just where it turned at right angles. From the beach he was invisible. But farther back Flight Lieut. Stanislaus and the Colonel were lying huddled against each other, still asleep.
Major Bridie cursed himself for not having had the forethought to waken them. He was on his own. If he bungled this, all their carefully laid scheme could be exploded by one warning enemy shout.
To Be Continued